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wasps, bees, and ants

Hymenoptera

What do they look like?

This group of insects contains many subgroups of wasps, and and also bees and ants, which evolved from wasp ancestors.

There are many different sizes in this group. Some parasitic wasps are so small they can develop into adults inside the eggs of other insects. Others are large and strong predators, over 3 cm long. All have chewing mouthparts, and the adults have a thin connection between their last two body sections (the abdomen and the thorax). All have 4 clear wings as adults, with the front pair larger than the back pair (queen and male ants have wings too, but only for a short time. Bees and wasps have straight antennae, ants often have a permanent bend in theirs.

Parasitic wasps often have a very large needle-like structure at the end of their abdomen. This isn't a stinger, its an ovipositor. They use it to inject their eggs inside a host insect, and some drill through bark, wood, or plant stems to get to their victims. These wasps mostly cannot sting, and they do not have the black and bright yellow colors that you may already know about.

Other wasps are predators, biting and stinging other insects and spiders. The wasps eat them, or carry their prey to their to feed their young. Wasps that sting are usually brightly colored with black and yellow stripes, sometimes red. This is a warning to potential predators that they can sting.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • sexes shaped differently

Where do they live?

This is the second most diverse group of insects, only beetles are more diverse. There are over 200,000 species of wasps and their relatives known around the world, and probably at least that many still unknown to science. There are hundreds of species of wasps, bees, and ants here in Michigan.

Wasps and their kin are found all around the world.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Wasps, Bees and Ants are found in just about every habitat on land, except only the coldest polar regions.

How do they grow?

Wasps and their relatives all have complete metamorphosis. From the egg a larva hatches out. It looks a lot like a short fat white worm, but has a distinct head, and may have six small jointed legs. The larva grows and molts (sheds its whole skin) several times before transforming into a pupa. This resting stage has some of the body parts of an adult, but it can't move or feed. Inside, it is transforming into an adult. Eventually an adult emerges from its pupal skin.

How do they reproduce?

Female wasps, bees, and ants can lay dozens to many thousands of eggs, depending on the species. Unless they are parasites they make a nest, and supply their larvae with food to eat.

Some species in this group form colonies where only one or a few females (called queens) lay eggs, and the other females in the colony do not reproduce. Instead they take care of the queens' offspring. A few times a year, some of the offspring fly away to start new colonies.

  • Breeding season
    Summer

Females in this group do a lot of parental care. In most species each female builds her own nest, and collects a food supply for each of her offspring. In some species they work cooperatively to build a nest and collect food, and in some species many females tend their sisters and brothers and don't reproduce themselves.

How long do they live?

Most wasps live less than one year, some workers for just a few months. Queens sometimes live for several years.

How do they behave?

Most wasps are active during daylight hours. They are active creatures, following scents to find their food. As noted in the reproduction section, some species live together in nests of relatives. No wasps migrate: if it regularly gets too cold or dry where they live, they go dormant until conditions improve.

How do they communicate with each other?

These insects depend on chemical communication (taste/smell), but they also use other means. Males and females find each other with scent chemicals called pheromones, and ants and social wasps and bees use chemicals to identify nestmates and send warnings and other information. Parasitic wasps sometimes leave scent marks on the host insects to tell any other parasitic wasps that they've already laid eggs there. Some ants can also make noises and vibrations to communicate. Of the three groups, wasps are the most visual. They often hunt by sight.

What do they eat?

Parasitic wasps get most of their protein from the host insect or spider they eat as larvae. Adult parasitic wasps mostly just drink nectar.

Most non-parasitic wasps are predators and scavengers. They feed on dead animals, or hunt insects and spiders, and use their sting to paralyze their prey. They eat their prey themselves or bring some back to the hive to feed growing larvae. Some make individual cells, and put a supply of paralyzed prey animals in there along with an egg. The larva hatches and there is all the food they need. In general wasps are attracted to sugary foods like fruit or high protein foods like meat.

Some wasp species have larvae that eat plants the same way that caterpillars do.

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
    • eats non-insect arthropods
  • herbivore

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Wasps are best known for their ability to give a painful sting, and lots of species do use their stingers to defend themselves and their nests. They also build their nests in places that are hard for predators to reach (either up high or underground) and many build nests out of hard mud to keep their larvae safe. Some wasps that attack other bees or wasps have especially hard exoskeletons for armor.

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Wasps are important predators of other insects. Some species are valuable pollinators, and their relatives the bees are the most important pollinators of all.

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • pollinates
Species (or larger taxonomic groups) used as hosts by this species
  • Butterflies
  • Moths
  • Other Wasps
  • Bees
  • Spiders
  • Beetles
  • Insect Eggs
  • Flies

Do they cause problems?

Some of these species have a painful sting. The social nesting species can actually be dangerous to people: if someone disturbs their nest, they may sting them so many times that the person's life is endangered. Also, some wasps attack beneficial insects like bees.

  • Ways that these animals might be a problem for humans
  • injures humans
    • bites or stings

How do they interact with us?

In general this group of organisms has much more positive effects than negative. They are important enemies of many insect pests, helping protect our crops. They are also important pollinators, allowing our flowers and vegetables to grow and reproduce.

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • pollinates crops
  • controls pest population

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends.

bog

a wetland area rich in accumulated plant material and with acidic soils surrounding a body of open water. Bogs have a flora dominated by sedges, heaths, and sphagnum.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chaparral

mid-altitude coastal areas with mild, rainy winters and long, dry summers. Dominant plant types are dense, evergreen shrubs.

cooperative breeder

helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

eusocial

the condition in which individuals in a group display each of the following three traits: cooperative care of young; some individuals in the group give up reproduction and specialize in care of young; overlap of at least two generations of life stages capable of contributing to colony labor

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

marsh

marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.

metamorphosis

A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

polar

the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.

polyandrous

Referring to a mating system in which a female mates with several males during one breeding season (compare polygynous).

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

rainforest

rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Climbing plants are also abundant. There is plenty of moisture and rain, but may be somewhat seasonal.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

solitary

lives alone

swamp

a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.

taiga

this biome is characterized by large expanses of coniferous forest, there is an extended cold season and heavy snowfall.

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tundra

A terrestrial biome found in very cold places -- either close to polar regions or high on mountains. Part of the soil stays frozen all year. Few kinds of plants grow here, and these are low mats or shrubs not trees. The growing season is short.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

 
University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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. "Hymenoptera" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 18, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Hymenoptera/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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